Emergence, emergents, and libertarianism

Over on Scot McKnight’s blog, “Jesus Creed”, Michael Kruse has a guest post on what he claims is a “selective appeal” to emergence theory (a theory about the operation of complex systems). I think he misunderstands emergence theory, or applies it in only a limited way. The post is worth reading, and that’s necessary to understanding my comments. But in a nutshell, he asks why emergent or emerging Christians aren’t economic libertarians. They argue that spontaneous order will still emerge even when the shackles of authority are thrown off. Sounds kinda like theological libertarianism. But it’s not.

I don’t know that much about emerging theology. Names like Brian McLaren, Troy Bronsink, and Will Samson float around in my head, pretty untethered to a rigorous classification, all lumped into the categories of surprising, interesting and delightful people from whom I can learn a great deal. But I do know that they are more interested in communities than in the “free market”, and that all communities are constituted by constraint. Kruse does a good job of explaining this. They are interested in what kinds of order, what kinds of organization, bubble up from the bottom when they aren’t imposed from above.

But I think Kruse oversimplifies things when he looks to economists like Hayek or his modern libertarian followers for examples of “emergence” theory. (In fact, I believe Hayek’s views were much richer than most modern libertarians.)

Libertarians have a very narrow view and special view of the concept of emergence as an economic phenomenon. The truth is, decentralized, individual actors give rise to many kinds of complex behavior, including institutions other than the “free market.” Most libertarian ideas amount to an attempt to flatten interactions, to reduce the richness of social institutions, to remove the emergent complexity of social interactions. They would design systems which artificially prevent the normal evolution of social norms, morals, rules, traditions, relationships of reciprocity, and other emergent forms of order. People are moral creatures, and that morality is not purely a private phenomenon. It finds expression in persuasion, social pressure, democratic government, courts, and even in corporations and bureaucracies.

The insights of Hayek and his followers are very important, and neglected at our peril. Highly decentralized, anonymous interactions do give rise to spontaneous order, as reflected in stable price signals, markets clearing, cost minimization, gains from trade, welfare enhancement (if not exactly maximization), etc. But no human would be happy with a libertarian or economic approach to managing the number of abortions, whether they are pro-life or pro-choice (I have done many classroom exercises exploring just such a topic. Everyone wants society to use institutions other than the market to answer questions about abortion. But libertarian economics, like authoritarian government, clears away mid-level institutions that constrain human freedom.)

Institutional economics is the place to look for emergence theory. Libertarian economics only has a very shallow (but nonetheless important) concept of emergence. Check out classic writers like Herb Simon, Robert Axelrod, Elinor Ostrom, or economists at the Santa Fe Institute like Brian Arthur, for richer views on emergence in economic and social systems.

As such, I think emergence as a concept fits the emerging crowd better than the libertarian crowd.

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